“The history of genetically modified foods doesn’t feature a history of testing appropriate to their innovative character.” That’s Vivian Weil, longtime head of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She and University of Chicago geneticist Jocelyn Malamy did a thorough job of setting the table at the Illinois Humanities Council’s genetics program last Saturday, identifying and distinguishing the issues around genetically modified foods, but that didn’t leave the audience much time to eat. (IHC has an associated blog with some discussion.)

Malamy’s key point is that not all GM plants pose the same questions. “Round-Up Ready” transgenic plants are resistant to herbicide, so that farmers can control weeds by spraying more and cultivating less. They pose questions of environmental damage from added chemical use. “Bt” transgenic plants have a bacterial gene inserted that makes them toxic to European corn borers; the issue is whether they might poison desirable insects or cause Bt-resistant borers to evolve over time.

Malamy also ran down questions (and her answers) that apply to both current GM plants and future ones:

Is the process of adding or altering genes harmful to consumers?  (No.)

Could specific transgenes be toxic?  (Maybe.)

Can transgenic pollen spread to other crops or wild relatives?  (Yes.)

Could specific transgenic plants be detrimental to the environment?  (Potentially.)

Other food issues don’t apply specifically to GM crops but are problems with industrial farming in general: the use of pesticides, growing monocultures of the same crop, hybrid seeds that farmers can’t save, and agribusinesses’ aggressive enforcement of their patent claims.

Both GM plants and GM foods should be tested for safety, said Malamy. “I would advocate activism to make sure agencies are in place” to do this job properly, she added.

The panelists even had a little philosophical dust-up about how to put GM in context. Moderator Bruce Kraig of Roosevelt University and the Culinary Historians of Chicago began the day by saying, “Genetic manipulation began millennia ago,” implying that GM foods are not significantly different from strains of cattle selectively bred over generations for milk or beef production. Malamy qualified this, saying, “There are limits to breeding. You can’t breed for resistance to the corn borer, because no such trait exists in the plant to start with. But other plants have it.” And Weil was equally hesitant: “This is an innovation in breeding. There is a break — now we have the ability to bring genes from sources not previously available.”

In a sentence: genetic modification isn’t the end of the world, but it’s definitely not business as usual, and so far the government hasn’t regulated it well.